By David Sparrow
April 09, 2014
Rotten To The Core 34728

As I write this, my daughter, a fourth-grader, is finishing her last day of the ELA (English Language Arts) exam of the Common Core, a new standard that is being implemented in 45 states. The purpose is to raise the level of America's students, who don't measure up to the international standards of other developed nations, particularly the high-achieving Asian student from China, Singapore, and Japan.

As with many big educational initiatives, including No Child Left Behind, the Common Core's goals are laudable, but its execution is not. The problems are manifold. First, the Core is not a curriculum at all but rather a set of standards that students are expected to meet year by year, starting in third grade. That is problematic, because without being instructed in the specific skills kids are expected to master, teachers have no choice but to teach to the test, which, as we all know, is hardly the best way to learn. That they do, to the best of their ability.

But as we pointed out in Parents, teachers in New York State (which was one of the first to implement the Core last year) didn't know until late in the game what the expectations were, so they didn't have ample time to prepare kids for them. This year, they were better prepared for what was to come. However, this brings up the second problem: They've had to spend weeks—and, in many cases, months—getting kids ready for six days of testing that, depending on where they live, has a tremendous impact on their future. So in addition to regular homework, children have been bringing home practice exams to work on. And they've been forced to adjust the way they solve problems, lest they lose out on credit (even if they get the right answer). For example, in solving 104 divided by 4, I was told it wasn't acceptable for my daughter to see how many times 4 goes into 10 (2) and then carry the 2, yielding an answer of 26. That's the way my wife and I learned it, and it takes about 15 seconds (I know, because I tried it out on my daughter, who said, "This way is easy."). But I was told this method shows an ability to calculate but not a deep understanding of processes and relationships. Instead, she needs to estimate through multiplication (4 x 10 = 40, another 4 x 10 = 40, add them up and you get 80, which leaves 24; 4 x 6 = 24; so the answer is 10 + 10 + 4 = 24). Not only does this approach take eons longer, but it's infinitely more confusing—and, with the multiple numbers and steps involved, far more likely to result in an error that yields the wrong answer.

Let's skip to the English, which should be a more straightforward reflection of a child's grade-appropriate reading and comprehension. But left in the hands of a for-profit company like Pearson, which makes up the tests (not to mention the workbooks and practice exams, which, conveniently, need to be updated every year to reflect its changes in the exam), it is a mess. Pearson has free reign to do field-testing of questions at select schools, and to put "dummy" questions on the exams that don't count and are merely used to determine their aptness for the future (which subjects kids to yet more testing). But the real issue is how the company decides what is grade appropriate. Looking through the workbook, I was shocked to find a reading passage from King Lear with follow up questions based on the text. This is one of Shakespeare's most complicated and debated plays. I remember poring through annotations and interpretations of the text (Cliff notes, anyone?) in an attempt to understand the nuances (not to mention struggling to keep names like Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan straight). Then I saw one of the questions, which had multiple-choice options to describe what was meant by Lear's "guilty mind": Angry? Confused? Wasn't he both these things? Isn't the correct answer the subject of endless scholarly conjecture, much less something a 9-year-old should be expected to know? Then there was a passage about two men trying to escape from jail, with one worrying about whether to leave his injured buddy behind. It's heady stuff for a child who doesn't even watch PG movies yet.

The results of these tests are being used to evaluate schools and teachers, so neither has a choice but to play ball. And the stakes are high for students as well. In New York City, the tests are a key factor in middle school and, later, high school admission for kids (yes, you heard that right). The kids know this and feel the pressure. They stress about the tests, worrying about the results and its impact, and feeling unintelligent because some of the material is clearly beyond their level (and they'll never know what counts and what doesn't).

It's little wonder that parents have pushed back. Some have decided to opt out their kids, skipping the tests altogether and facing the consequences. Others have hired tutors to help their kids get through—believe me, it's the norm rather than the exception in my area. Still others have attended protests or blogged about the ridiculousness of some exam questions. The debate is far from over. Indeed, as more states implement it next year, I expect to see further controversy, and can only hope that adjustments are made, not only in the exams—which need a thorough overhaul, under the guidance of educational experts with a child-development background—but also in mentality. Yes, our students need to achieve at a higher level. But they won't do it via a top-down mentality that suggests making tests harder will force them to up their game. They'll get there by improving teacher training, and by giving schools the freedom to teach them a deeper, broader-based curriculum without being made to narrow their focus toward ill-conceived tests that, in the end, are unlikely to help them close the gap.

On Friday, our community school district will hold a demonstration expressing dissatisfaction with the nature of the ELA exams. Among the objections: The tests are not well-aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards; the questions are poorly constructed and often ambiguous; teachers are not permitted to use (or even discuss) the questions or the results to inform their teaching; and students and families receive little or no specific feedback from the test. I'll be there, making my voice heard.

Photo of boy in school about to take a test via Shutterstock